Childhood Challenges Prepared Teacher
By EMILY RAMSEY
TEACHER OF THE YEAR: Monica Conners stands in her English language development classroom, which comes equipped with a language lab. The lab allows Conners’ students, many of them foreign refugees, to work on language development and reading fluency.
EMILY RAMSEY for GTR Newspapers
Jenks Middle School’s English language development teacher Monica Conners’ job description entails much more than teaching, she readily admits.
“I’m a mom, counselor, advocate, defender, administrator, translator,” she says. “I can be fierce in defending my students and advocating for the best interests of the child.” While the responsibility of advocating for and defending children would normally fall on their parents, many of the parents of Conners’ students are unable to do so because they do not speak English.
Conners’ students are largely made up of refugees and immigrants from areas of Southeast Asia and Syria, many of whom have limited educational backgrounds, do not speak English and lack literacy in their native tongues.
For those students, the first step is to focus on “learning the basics,” Conners says, “simply the way class is conducted, or the way we sit in chairs at desks differ from their country.
“When they get here, they are so young and so overwhelmed; they often cry at first. They are coming from a place that’s homogenous. Now they are in a place where they are in the minority.”
Besides the culture shock that any individual would experience, add to that the language barrier, and Conners has her work cut out for her.
She refers to herself as the “best charades player.” In her six years of teaching, she has become very adept at using body language and drawing pictures to communicate with her students.
But Conners always knows that she won’t have to use her charades for long. “All students grow through the year,” she says, “but my students experience tremendous growth in one year. It is so dramatic—they come in knowing no English, but, by the end of the year, they can tell stories, have conversations, can be understood.”
Conners, who was named the Middle School’s Teacher of the Year, enjoys supporting her students, helping them cope with their new situation and any hardships they may be dealing with. That is partly because Conners understands what it’s like for students to feel like they have the odds, seemingly, stacked against them.
Conners grew up in an impoverished family in northern California. “I fully remember what it was like not to have enough food on the table,” she says, a fact that she believes makes her more relatable to her students. She credits positive adult influences that helped her achieve her potential. She endeavors to pass on that experience.
“I have the opportunity to make it not so bad for a lot of kids,” she says. “I have the power to influence. I can’t think of anything more important.”